(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)
Most of spring training is a crap-shoot statistically. Ace pitchers could give up several runs in a start and it could mean nothing except that pitcher was throwing all change-ups. In 2017 spring training the batting average leader was Jesus Aguilar who went on to be largely irrelevant for fantasy purposes. Being eager to get an edge on potential breakouts we can’t help but sift through this unreliable data to try and find what might be relevant for our fantasy drafts. Let’s look at a few things I’ve noticed thus far in spring training.
Kolten Wong (2B, St. Louis Cardinals) leads all of spring training with six stolen bases. Wong may have been a little forgotten after his disappointing production the last couple years. Since his rookie season (2014) hitting 12 home runs and stealing 20 bases in only 113 games, he’s been ineffective failing to reach 10 in stolen bases or home runs in either of the past two years. Wong’s poor performance has also cost him consistent playing time as Jedd Gyorko and Matt Carpenter have had time at 2B instead. He does still face playing time concerns as Greg Garcia and Jose Martinez also fight for playing time in the Cardinals infield, but the performance was improved in 2017. Performing as an above-average hitter in each the first and second halves, Wong’s limitation was instead injury as he made two separate trips to the Disabled List.
As Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports, Wong wants to show he can run more often and more effectively. Having improved his On-Base Percentage each year of his career, Wong is primed for a return to his 20+ stolen base days. Kolten Wong is currently pegged as the Cardinals primary 2B but will still likely be hitting 8th in front of the pitcher. While there are still some limitations, Wong is worth considering in drafts if you’ve missed opportunities for speed earlier in drafts or still need to fill your 2B slot. With an increase in SB production he could provide sneaky value at the end of drafts or off the waiver wire.
Jason Kipnis (2B, Cleveland Indians) leads all of spring training with six home runs. Having dealt with hamstring and shoulder problems in 2017, Kipnis had 3 separate trips to the Disabled List and missed a total of 72 games. Reportedly healthy for spring training, Kipnis is ready to get back to starting every day. Kipnis still is slotted as the primary 2B for the Indians, but also has received some time in center field last year. Kipnis is only going to be 31 years old this year so let’s not fall into thinking he’s done and should be ignored. What some might not have noticed due to his scattered playing time was a huge uptick in fly balls. Typically in the low 30’s for fly ball percentage Kipnis bumped it up to over 44% in 2017. Pairing that with a contact rate over 80% is somewhat rare. There were only 12 players (over 300 plate appearances) that had a fly ball percentage over 44%, a contact rage over 80%, and a hard hit rate over 30%, like Jason Kipnis. Of that group the average HR/FB rate was 14.5% while Kipnis was only good for 10%, potentially below average due to the nagging injuries.
The point is Jason Kipnis has made a very clear change in his swing or approach to produce more fly balls, not shocking considering he’s teammates with Jose Ramirez who also had a huge power breakout. Kipnis might not have the power to hit 35 home runs but I very well could see him reach the 25-30 range with this increased power. The fact it’s showing up in spring training as well gives me greater confidence in the changes we saw last year. Kipnis has essentially been forgotten in fantasy drafts with an ADP around 250, but he just might be able to get back into the top 4-8 range for 2B.
Amir Garrett (LHP, Cincinnati Reds) has thrown 7 innings with 11 strikeouts, 2 walks, and a 2.57 ERA so far in two spring training appearances. Garrett is taking another shot at earning a rotation spot with the Reds. 2017 was abysmal now matter how you look at it. 70 innings of a 7.39 ERA in the majors and 67 innings of a 5.72 ERA in AAA both spell a total meltdown. Garrett was always known to be a two-sport athlete that might take a little longer to develop command, but the scouting reports were always strong. Both Baseball America and FanGraphs graded Garrett’s fastball as plus with a good change-up and an OK slider. However, FanGraphs scores his fastball in 2017 as by far the lowest pitch value of the three pitches. Without any PitchFX data on Garrett’s spring training appearances we can’t determine if there is a change being made, but there are reports of improved mechanics, improved attitude, and Garrett himself mentioned playing around with different grips. For an early career pitcher this isn’t surprising but it does give hope that Garrett might have some potential here to make good on his previous scouting reports.
FanGraphs did put out some updated scouting reports on players who are no longer prospects, including Garret, and his report does not sound pretty. There are multiple issues like command, poor slider spin rate, and walk rate that need to be ironed out. I would not suggest drafting Garrett in any leagues just yet, but he is worth paying attention to and adding to your watch list to see if this spring performance continues. It wouldn’t be the first time a pitching prospect struggles early in his career to develop as expected a year or two later.
Garrett’s amateur background is probably worth a deeper dive in any discussion about him being a late-bloomer. He is relatively new to his craft as he actually played minutes and scored points at St John’s in college. It’s not the standard, played QB in HS story. He is in the rare fraternity that actually played major college sports and I don’t think he gets enough recognition for that. Who are the other ones? Honestly, I don’t know. He is also 6-6 and I think we know that taller pitchers generally develop later. I am not all-in on him, but I think there are some perfectly good reason that he would not compare favorably to his contemporaries. I think you do a good job of pointing at it, but it seems most people have given up on him, but I am holding out some hope.
Jason Kipnis’ #1 fans are probably his immediate family, but I am right behind them. I am actually shocked that Kipnis generated any good data in 2017 as he was terrible. Contact rage over 80% is very impressive! I know that tracking swing adjustments is all the rage these days… but I have always thought of Kipnis as a guy that changes his swing plane frequently. It makes sense that he would be good at that adjustment to me at least. If you look at the yearly number, he is a different hitter every year – sometimes he hits for power, sometime he hits for average, he usually runs.
I hate to say it, but I am not buying Kipnis this year. Those injuries are just so consistent for him. The source of his issues is his shoulder, which he has never had fixed. I am really hoping that he can put together a healthy year, but I can’t make that bet again. I hope he shoves it right down my throat… I really do. In any case, it is great to see everyone not hating him for a while, which most did last year.